Meaning

Morris Berman has observed that during periods of rapid transformation in human history, such as the Renaissance, 'the meaning of individual lives begins to surface as a disturbing problem'.19 As the climate crisis unfolds, and poses the question of the future of humankind, the meaning of our lives will come increasingly to the fore. After a long period of psychological disruption stability will return only with the emergence of a new understanding of the Earth, a story to replace the one in which the globe is seen as a repository of resources to fuel endless growth. The new narrative will reflect a world no longer subject to human will but governed by forces largely beyond our control. In that sense, the new story will be closer to those of pre-modern cultures where daily lives and destiny were in the hands of all-powerful invisible forces. In the West little changed from Ancient Greece to Shakespearean England. Caught in a storm at sea, Pericles declaimed:

Wind, rain and thunder, remember earthly man

Is but a substance that must yield to you.

As much as anything else, Shakespeare's plays are about the weather—its fickle capacity to disrupt the plans of mortals, its moods as symbolic of ours, and its utility as the chief weapon of the gods.

I have suggested that we now face a profound threat not because of our beliefs or even our attitudes, but because of the very way we see and understand the world, our way of being in the world. The scientific revolution taught us to understand ourselves in a new way, to feel radically separated from the world around us, to experience ourselves as isolated egos inside our bodies which must understand and act on the 'world out there'. The alternative is simply a different way of experiencing ourselves out of which a distinctive understanding and set of values arises. It involves reconceptualising the Earth in a way that supersedes the idea that it exists to meet our needs, to accept that it is not a storehouse to be raided at will but our only home.

Of all humans, we moderns alone have lived in a radically desacralised cosmos.20 We saw that, on the eve of the scientific revolution, Isaac Newton himself was an avid participant in an animate universe. Newton, and almost all of those who came before him, differed from us not so much because of what they believed but because of their mode of being in the world.21 For them, in addition to its practical consequences, the disruption of the climate by human activity would have had religious meaning. Climate change would have meant sky trouble. For pre-modern men and women the sky was powerfully symbolic. It represented the infinite, the transcendent; it is where the gods dwell and where we aim to ascend after we have cast off our mortal form. As Mircea Eliade writes: '. . . a religious sense of the divine transcendence is aroused by the very existence of the sky'.22 With climate change mortal humans have violated the domain of the gods, disturbed the home of the transcendent. Why wouldn't the deities retaliate, the more so as we have aroused the heavens by digging into and releasing the energy of the underworld?

I am not sure this is such a primitive understanding of the meaning of climate change, for the signs that the sky retains its divine symbolism are everywhere: it is where the prayerful look; where the eyes of the goal-scorer turn; its moods impose themselves on ours; and it still feels eerie to fly in it. And nothing can better evoke a sense of cosmic mystery than the night sky. It is one thing, therefore, to foul our own realm on the surface of the Earth but quite another to violate the celestial vault, the realm of the gods.

Eliade has noticed that in early cultures, after the act of creation the Supreme Being withdraws. As men and women become increasingly occupied with their own discoveries, the divine becomes more remote and other religious forces come into play—fertility, sexuality, money and personal creativity. These are more practical mythologies. Today in the West, meaning is found above all in the commitment to progress, technology and consumption. We have not lost our religious sensibility, for secularisation can be understood as 'the disembedding of faith from an encompassing religious culture'.23 But the god of gods can always stage a return. Eliade wrote:24

In cases of extreme distress and especially in cases of disaster proceeding from the sky—drought, storm, epidemic—men turn to the supreme being again and entreat him . . . [I]n an extremely critical situation, in which the very existence of the community is at stake, the divinities who in normal times ensure and exalt life are abandoned in favor of the supreme god.

The lesser divinities could reproduce and augment life but they could not save life in moments of crisis. Perhaps these archaic patterns remain implanted within us, structuring our deeper consciousness so that, as the climate disruption unfolds and the sky seems to turn against us, we will abandon the lesser gods of money, growth and hedonism and turn to the celestial god, the creator god who alone has the power to save us. Is not the tentative turn to Gaia just such an appeal? If our scientific understanding and technological control over the world allowed us to discard the gods, will the reassertion of Nature's power see us turn again to the sacred for protection? Will the late surge of militant atheism come to be seen as a Homeric burst of pride before the fall?

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